Kennedy was originally slated to face Lyoto Machida at "Fight for Troops 3," but when a detached retina caused Michael Bisping to withdraw from UFC Fight Night 30's main event, Machida stepped in to face Mark Munoz. That left Kennedy without an opponent until Natal filled the void.
Kennedy made his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) debut this summer at UFC 162, grinding out a decision win over Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Roger Gracie. The Army Green Beret is a longtime Strikeforce veteran who twice fought for the promotion's middleweight championship.
He came up short in both of those mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts, so now it's time to sink or swim in the dangerous waters of the UFC Octagon.
Natal is a dangerous Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who was last seen winning a war versus Tor Troeng at UFC Fight Night 28 in early September. He's on a three-fight win streak in UFC and a win over a name like Kennedy will have him knocking on the door of a top 10 ranking.
Both Kennedy and Natal have the skills to make this one of the most exciting bouts at "Fight for Troops 3." But will they?
Let's check out the keys to victory for Tim Kennedy vs. Rafael Natal:
Record: 15-4 overall, 1-0 UFC
Key Wins: Roger Gracie (UFC 162), Robbie Lawler (Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Henderson)
Keys to Victory: Kennedy is a Greg Jackson-trained product with a diverse skill set inside the Octagon. He's dispatched five foes by knockout, eight by submission, and three by decision. Coupling his black belt in Japanese jiu-jitsu with his time spent as a member of the Army Special Forces makes Kennedy a dangerous man in the grappling department.
But that's not his best way to achieve victory in Ft. Campbell.
Since Natal loves to make his opponent tap out, Kennedy should look to utilize his advantage on the feet. He may not be known for elite striking, but refusing to engage Natal in a grappling-only fight will be crucial to success. If Kennedy gets too overzealous with a takedown, he may get lulled into a false sense of security.
Kennedy needs to make this fight play out how he wants to it to, not the other way around. He may have excellent submission skills, but there's no reason to let pride get in the way of a concise gameplan.
It's been quite awhile since Kennedy has finished a bout via strikes. If a choke presents itself in Kentucky, Kennedy will be fast to take full advantage of the opportunity. But Natal has never once tapped out.
However, he has been knocked out three times.
Kennedy has a top-notch striking coach in the form of Mike Winkeljohn. He should utilize the knowledge he's been given to pick Natal apart on the feet.
Record: 17-4-1 overall, 5-2-1 UFC
Key Losses: Andrew Craig (UFC on FUEL TV 4)
Keys to Victory: As a veteran of eight bouts inside the Octagon, Natal has been plying his trade in UFC for some time now. He'll be looking for a fourth straight victory in Ft. Campbell, but he'll have to beat the toughest opponent he's ever faced to get it.
Natal won all three fights he's had this year.
He beat Troeng, Zeferino, and Sean Spencer, opponents who are much easier outs than Kennedy.
To win in Ft. Campbell, Natal will need to show that he's progressed. This fight truly is his proving ground and a win will be accompanied by a huge boost in momentum.
Natal's best skill set is obviously his polished Brazilian jiu-jitsu game. "Sapo" has notched eight submission wins in his MMA career. He has a world-class arsenal of finishing holds and he'll need it against Kennedy.
Although taking Kennedy to the mat and locking up a submission is going to be an incredibly tough task, it's still Natal's best chance to win. If he can gain an advantageous position on the ground and look for transitions to score points, he'll be able to get ahead on the scorecards.
Natal isn't known for his striking prowess. He did show glimpses of improvement in his war with Troeng at UFN 28. There's a small chance Natal may be looking to surprise the fans by taking Kennedy out on the feet.
It's highly unlikely though.
Natal knows where his advantage lies, even over a top-flight grappler like Kennedy. This fight could get ugly so every point is going to be crucial to obtaining a victory. Natal's grappling background will give him a shot to win this one.
Bottom Line from Fort Campbell: The bottom line here is that this may be the biggest fight of either combatant's life. With a potential spot in the UFC middleweight top 10 rankings up for grabs, there's no room for error in Ft. Campbell.
Both Kennedy and Natal are extremely resilient fighters who are nearly impossible to finish. With the submission prowess of both, we could be in for a chess match on the ground. Or we could see a stand-up battle erupt when both fighters' grappling negates the other.
The winner will be on a run in a very tough division, surviving to fight on towards bigger and better things. It's a closely matched bout that doesn't have a predictable outcome.
Kennedy has the overall edge because he's never been submitted. The only knockout loss he suffered was due to a doctor's stoppage, a testament to his overall resiliency. Natal isn't far behind in toughness, but he has been knocked out three times.
Because of that, Kennedy has the more ways to win. Natal may be better overall on the ground, but he could have a tough time gaining the upper hand if the fight isn't dragged to the mat.
Tim Kennedy looks for his second straight UFC win at "Fight for Troops 3." Can Rafael Natal send him packing and notch his fourth Octagon victory inside of a year?